Thursday, May 21, 2009

Me & My Jack of Diamonds

Sure, I have some Grateful Dead songs on my iTunes and you'd have to be a hippy-hater to not like their classic album "American Beauty" but there's a funny thing that happens when "The Dead" and music dorks intersect. Nobody ever really dabbles in "The Dead". It's as if you're a "Dead Head" or you can't stand the band. Until recently I was closer to the latter, but I think I'm beginning to feel the Darkstar tractor beam pulling me in . . .

I tend to approach musical behemoths in the same way. I resist dabbling until I can perceive a crack in their monumental veneer, an opening that allows me to understand and appreciate their work, and then I dive in and rarely surface until I've devoured a majority of their catalog. So you can see why I'm trepidatious. Well, that and I'm not sure that I'm comfortable with the "dead head" moniker.

not me, but the other guy looks like a bigger, fatter version of my uncle (seriously)

My "in" in this case is the John Phillips composition, "Me & My Uncle" otherwise known by the title "Jack of Diamonds." I'm a big John Phillips fan and picked up the compilation by the name "Jack of Diamonds" that pulled together a random assortment of rarities and odds n' ends from the 1970s. There are two versions of the tune "Jack of Diamonds" on the CD and strangely enough the "alternate" version is the more conventional of the two. I've selected the regular version, which has an extremely relaxed and dare I say druggy vibe - I mean, this is John Phillips we're talking about here.

John Phillips - Jack of Diamonds
The story goes that Phillips wrote the song during an all night drinking session accompanied by Judy Collins, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, among others, in 1963. At the time Phillips was a member of the folk group, The Journeymen, and Stills and Young had yet to make it to L.A. to form The Buffalo Springfield. Collins was the only one in the group of partiers with an active recording career and so unbeknownst to Phillips, Collins recorded the song for her Judy Collins Concert album. You can listen to the full song here (it might ask you to download the rhapsody widget thingy, but it doesn't take long and its well worth it). The most interesting thing about the song, is that Phillips woke up the next morning with absolutely no recollection of writing or playing the song and story has it that, "John used to joke that, little by little, with each royalty check, the memory of writing the song would come back to him." This version comes from the early 1970s after Collins, The Dead and a few others had already made it a classic. Phillips wanted to put his own stamp on it and switched around the lyrics a bit and re-titled it. To me it has a bit of that Steely Dan "Do It Again" slick rock shuffle.

We need to stop a second because who knew that there was more to know about Judy Collins?!? I have two previous associations with Collins: 1) my very un-hip step-grandmother liked her, and 2) I heard that she was Stephen Stills' cougar back in the 60s and that Suite Judy Blue Eyes was written about her. Next, we get to the other versions of the song, most notably when The Grateful Dead started working it into their live repertoire around 1966.

I guess if I'm going to ease my way into the dead, I might as well start with the song the Grateful Dead played more than any other, cover or original, all the way from 1966 to 1995! according to this very thorough website.

A relatively brief searcheroo on Soulseek unveiled about a half dozen live versions of the tune and I tried my best to select the ones that I thought really stood out and actually sounded different from each other. I swear it wasn't intentional, but the versions I selected came from the successive years of 1969, 1970 and 1971.

The Grateful Dead - Me & My Uncle (Live in Santa Rosa 6/28/69)
The Grateful Dead - Me & My Uncle (Live at Fillmore East 2/14/70)
The Grateful Dead - Me & My Uncle (Live at Fillmore East 4/29/71)


Scott Miller said...

This is what I like to hear! Any time you want to Dead-out, just head on up to Sacramento. I was listening to the first New Riders record this weekend & thinking how I need to write it up for you.


P.S. Next Dead record you should get is Europe 72 if you don't have it already.

the ambassador said...

Shamefully, I don't own any dead records yet. But now I'm on the lookout.